On a map in their West St. Paul bedroom, John and Rey Knudson pick out their birth city of Lapu Lapu City on the island of Cebu in the Philippines.
Several other keepsakes from the Philippines adorn their room, including a flag and small model jeepneys given to them by the Philippines government. Nearby are several NBA and baseball posters.
John and Rey were adopted by Michael and Sandra Knudson on April 1, 2009.
Like their boys, Michael and Sandra have their own keepsake from their boys' early days. They still have the first, and only, photo they saw of the boys before the adoption. It shows John holding Rey's hand.
"I just love it. I love everything about it. I love that John's holding Rey's hand," Sandra said.
"I think it really reflects their personalities," Sandra added, noting Rey is a bit more outgoing and John is a protective big brother.
The Knudsons decided to adopt after they couldn't have their own children, but they knew they wanted to be parents.
"We had this love that we wanted to share with kids," Michael said.
The couple initially eyed adopting through Colombia, but they shifted after long waits led them to attend an informational meeting at what's now EVOLVE.
Sandra recalls driving home and telling Michael, "This just feels right."
"It felt like family; everyone we met, we really felt like they had our best interests in mind and were in it for all the right reasons," Sandra said of working with what's now EVOLVE.
She remembers looking through the paperwork, and finding a small brochure on the Philippines, a country that wasn't on their radar.
That brochure set them on a course that would change their lives.
"It has been probably the best decision of my adult life, other than saying 'Yes" to your marriage proposal," she said, nodding to Michael.
"It has brought us a family, and not just any family," she continued. "These were the boys we were meant to be with."
The boys would come full circle later by being on an updated version of the brochure that led their parents to seek adoption through the Philippines.
"[A] full circle moment in our lives, because that little brochure is what changed our momentum,"
And now that little brochure is featuring our kids," Michael added.
John and Rey Day
The Knudsons received a call on Sept. 8, 2008, while they were shopping in a grocery store. They had been matched with brothers in the Philippines. Sandra remembers her knees buckling.
"I sort of went like weak in the knees, thinking, 'Oh my gosh,'" she said.
The couple left their full cart in the store and traveled to the EVOLVE office to look at the paperwork and a picture of the boys.
They had 15 days to decide whether to accept the referral, but it was a quick and easy decision.
They went home and laughed, cried and cheered together before calling family and friends to to tell them the news.
They accepted the match and the family sent gifts and other items for the boys' birthdays in November and December.
They even sent a cassette tape with their voices and several books, which they also read on the tapes, so the boys could hear their future parents' voices.
Taking the boys home
The Knudsons traveled to the Philippines in March 2009. The boys' Gotcha Day, their official day of adoption, is April 1, 2009, when John was 4 and Rey was 2. In late 2017, John turned 13 and Rey 11.
The Knudsons spent 12 days in the Philippines adopting the boys, though most of the work was completed ahead of time.
After finalizing the paperwork for the adoption, the main goal of the trip was to start building a relationship, trust and a routine with the boys.
The family's first focus was on language acquisition, and they spent time reading and looking through books with the boys.
John would often get excited and say something to his parents, and Michael would often reply, "I don't know, buddy" because of the language barrier. During their second week together, John excitedly told his father something in Cebuano before he and his father looked at each other and John said to his dad, "I don't know, buddy."
But the family built a trust and rapport after about 10 days together.
"We did build a relationship relatively quickly," Michael said.
After flying to the Philippines as couple, the Knudsons flew home as a family. Looking back, they admit they were a bit apprehensive taking two boys who didn't speak English home on almost 24-hours of flights.
"I kept wondering, 'What will life bring?' as does every parent on the planet," Sandra said.
The early days laid the foundation for their new life, from the meals and food to habits.
Sandra tracked their firsts with the boys. She remembers hearing them laugh for the first time, and she tracked the first time they snuggled with them and the first time the boys let their parents comfort them.
"Every first was important to us," Sandra said.
Looking back, Sandra says this is the dream: They have to happy, healthy boys who are playing sports and have friends. The family jokes they're in the chaos of the early teen and preteen years.
The boys enjoy sports, especially basketball. John loves the Golden State Warriors, including Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, while Rey likes the Oklahoma City Thunder. Both boys like Steph Curry and are Minnesota Timberwolves fans, too.
John felt a connection to Steph Curry, who is a small player for the sport, but he's proven to be one of the best in the game.
Still in touch
Sandra can quiz the boys on their knowledge of the Philippines: They know the country consists of 7,000 islands, about 2,000 of which people live on; they know its 13 hours ahead of Central Time; and they know it's almost always around 81 degrees.
In fourth grade, both boys did reports on the Philippines for school.
"They keep a strong connection to the Philippines," Michael said.
The family has connected to Filipino groups in the Twin Cities to keep the connection to the boys' culture, and there's a Philippines market they take the boys to for a pastry called otap, which the Knudsons were served with Mangos on the day they adopted the boys.
The boys often bring otap for their classmates at school on their Gotcha Day each year, and they often answer questions about the Philippines.
"I love that their friends know where the Philippines is," Sandra said. "I love that that's a part of their culture here, that they've shared that."
The Knudsons also remain in touch with the boys' foster parents, who Sandra describes as a beautiful family with eight biological children of their own who still take in children in need.
Sandra feels gratitude for them, because John and Rey came to them knowing how to be in a family, which is a huge gift.
A few years ago, the boys' home island was devastated by a typhoon, and the Knudsons raised money through their parish and school to support families in the boy's hometown.
Looking back, Michael and Sandra say waiting was the hardest part of the process.
For Philippines adoptions, the length and thoroughness could be a downside for some, but the system aims to ensure proper, strong matches. At the same time, everything is spelled out and the fees are paid ahead of time so there are no surprises.
"We were told what was gonna happen and then that happened," Michael said.
Michael and Sandra spent their waiting time planning for bringing the boys home and investigating the culture.
"It's a difficult place to be, but surround yourself with folks who really love you and will love your children," Sandra said.
The Knudsons were thankful for their strong support system in EVOLVE, too.
"EVOLVE provides some wonderful services for parents who are in that waiting arena," she said.
The family commended EVOLVE as a wonderful resource with many informational sessions and educational opportunities. But they also appreciated the personal touch of the agency.
"It's not just a job for them," she said. "We were very grateful. We could pick up the phone at any time."